Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Merry Christmas & Happy New Years

Since NMTs has hit its monthly goal of four posts for December, we'll beg off for the rest of 2011 and return in early January to enter our 3rd calendar year of profiles of the latest new acts and releases in alternative, mainstream, independent, folk, pop and many more formats of rock music. In particular, stay tuned for new releases from fun. (NMT's most favoritest group reviewed so far), Ben Kweller, Snow Patrol, and more.

In the meantime, feel free to reflect on our Red Sweater Days compilation of top Christmas songs from last year.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Miracles of Modern Science

 Usually, each post in this space will begin with some background on a specific style of music or ruminations on the uniqueness of a given band or artist. For this post, however, what you can expect from this week's profilees – the smarty-smarty, high-energy orchestral rock quintet Miracles of Modern Science – is most easily explained through a Venn diagram:

You see, the soundscape of Miracles of Modern Science – or their self-appointed acronym, MOMS – easily aligns in the intersection of styles previously encountered in four NMT reviewees (in order of their initial NMTs appearance): the folksy bluegrass of the Farewell Drifters (NMT, NMT); the rusty plains howl of Rural Alberta Advantage (NMT, NMT), the gypsy diversity of DeVotchKa (NMT) and the nerdy humor of They Might Be Giants (NMT). This blend of styles is achieved with near perfection on MOMS' ambitious debut, Dog Year, self-released by the band on December 6.

MOMS may be the contemporary embodiment of how a new band is formed. Founding members Evan Younger and Josh Hirshfeld linked up at Princeton University in 2004 via Facebook. After refining their sonic direction as a mix of classical, rock and folk music – reflecting not such the tonal patterns of the acts identified above, but other groups ranging from the history-infused punk of Titus Andronicus (NMT), the orchestral foundations of peers like Ra Ra Riot (NMT) and Hey Rosetta (NMT) to the spirited collective format found in groups like the Arcade Fire (NMT) – double bassist Younger and mandolinst Hirshfeld filled-in their sound by adding violinist Kieran Ledwidge, cellist Geoff McDonald and drummer Tyler Pines. Although their approach checked few boxes on what band managers, record labels and promoters prioritize in new acts, the ability to record and distribute new music via electronic media today allows groups like MOMS to reach more of their intended audience without lessening their musical direction. This model is apparent throughout Dog Year.

Opener "Moms Away!" is vibrant, headstrong and witty, chronicling a dream involving a supersonic clash between man and machine. Younger, handling lead vocals throughout the record's dozen tracks, is a hybrid of Rural Alberta Advantage's Nils Edenloff and Tokyo Police Club's (NMT) Dave Monks, aided by Hirshfeld's backing vocals. Hirshfeld's mandolin drives the number, while Younger and Pines pace it with its galloping rythym, and the string parts of Ledwidge and McDonald provide it's color. When paired with Younger's sci-fi nightmare, it's a refreshingly odd output, especially with the strange nod to Aaron Copeland's "A Lincoln Portrait" after the final chorus. It's the sort of thing Titus Andronicus included on their sophomore release, The Monitor (NMT), and only adds to MOMS' quirky combination of elements.

This is all followed by the equally weird "Strangerous," the tale of a creepy stalker in the vein of the Barenaked Ladies' similarly disturbing, but likewise brilliant "Straw Hat and Old Dirty Hank." Ledwidge and McDonald help set the mood with their lurking strings during the verses, and the whole thing takes off at its frenetic chorus. The group's propensity to conjure obscure song titles continues immediately on "Tensity," which matches its title's suggestion of stress with jerky figures from Hirshfeld's mandolin and Ledwidge's fiddle. It's a bit less tongue-in-cheek as its predecessors, but still well-constructed and executed, and spirals upwards to its chaotic zenith. A bit more restrained is "Eating Me Alive," with McDonald's gracious cello weaving through the verses, then racing off at the chorus in the same manner as so many Rural Alberta Advantage concepts. But the main gripe here is Younger's low-register bridge section. Like Edenloff and Monks, vocalists with more nasally tenor should avoid the deeper limits of their range, which often yields a noticeable downgrade in vocal enthusiasm and distinctiveness. Fortunately the barrage of instrumental firepower returns to close out the number.

Falling short of the initial outburst of energy found on the opening quartet of songs, "Quantum of Solace" is in keeping with the title's moribund frame. The pace and exhilaration that defined the album's early stages is absent here, and it's a hard slog. The same is true later on with "The Moon and Australia," albeit much shorter in length.

Despite these blemishes, the rest of the compilation is fantastic. Leadoff single "Luminol" builds from a bit of a sleepy start, fueled again by Hirshfeld and Ledwidge along with the unlikely addition of Beach Boys-style ooh-aah-ooh harmonies. Meanwhile, the woodlands zoology of "Friend of the Animals" is joyful throughout and animated by its campy animal imitations and barnyard jamboree at the end. The late-appearing duo of "Space Chopper" and "I Found Space" represents the record's finest work. The former is rambunctious and points to the big group sound of the Arcade Fire with its sing-along gang vocals, while the latter is pure exuberance, as if it were recorded among a gathering of the most delighted and possibly inebriated sci-fi nerds.

The same spirit returns to close out the album on "Bossa Supernova." It's a jubilant affair propelled by mandolin, violin and cello that alternate between ecstatic and measured, while Younger and Pine team to maintain the speed without caroming into anarchy. At the end, the not-so-disguised "Secret Track" is a cartoonish narrative of a man who lost his limbs and the resulting tragedies that beset him, the type of humorous content that have defined secret tracks spanning from Green Day's "All By Myself" to Barenaked Ladies' "She's On Time." Here, MOMS' protagonist is a mix of Dr. Scott from the Rocky Horror Show and Family Guy's Buzz Killington.

Come for: "Luminol"
Stay for: "I Found Space"
You'll be surprised by: "Bossa Supernova" 

P.S. MOMS does a fun cover of Foster the People's mega-hit, "Pumped Up Kicks"

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

The Black Keys

The two-person outfit is a rarity in rock music. Sure, there have been scores of prominent songwriting duos throughout rock history – the likes of Lennon/McCartney, Jagger/Richards and Page/Plant. But those tandems were all part of larger ensembles in terms of recording and live performances. The duo structure has largely been limited to folk-rock oriented pairings like the Everly Brothers and Simon & Garfunkel. And aside from the too-short run of The Carpenters and the now-defunct White Stripes – which was always more of a 80/20 share of talent and contributions between Jack and Meg White – the rock duo is almost impossible to identify beyond the efforts of this week's profilees, The Black Keys, and their seventh studio record, El Camino – out last Tuesday on Warner Brothers' Nonesuch Records.

Despite the duo's unique composition in relation to other bands, the act – comprised of vocalist and guitarist Dan Auerbach and drummer Patrick Carney, although both dabble into other instruments to round out their sound – toes closer to the classic rock vintage than more progressive elements. In fact, the 11-track album could have easily emerged from the mid-70s, with its hearty blend of blues-based thump, Motown-flavored blue-eyed soul and trace amounts of late 60's psychedelia. But unlike their contemporary peers like The Flaming Lips or Beck, Auerback and Carney tack more towards tightly-constructed, stand-alone numbers than anything approaching the 24-hour song recently offered by The Flaming Lips or the genre-bending work of Beck. Still, for those of us more inclined to less free-flowing rock standards, El Camino should more than compensate for its limited breadth. Moreover, the compilation's accomplishments are more impressive considering the band's truncated roster.

Produced by the well-traveled and influential Danger Mouse (Brian Burton) – key architect of the alternative hip-hop and R&B act, Gnarls Barkely, along with Cee Lo Green – along with Auerbach and Carney, the release is clothed in a more uptempo vibe than previous Black Keys efforts, especially its 2010 predecessor, Brothers. The change plays to the duo's strengths, a hard-charging enthusiasm, the sort best exemplified by punk-informed blues acts like the John Spencer Blues Explosion or electronic-influenced artists like Matt & Kim. This is true from the outset, via the thumping leadoff single, "Lonely Boy." Auerbach's sludgy bass line and stabbing guitar set the stage for Carney's kinetic percussion through the verses. Auerbach's vocals are filtered through a foggy haze, while outside session organist Brian Burton's work hangs some flesh on the duo's bony foundation. Likewise, background vocals from Leisa Han, Heather Rigdon and Ashley Wilcoxson contribute some welcome soul to Auerbach's tangy singing.

The energy builds on the following "Dead and Gone," a pounding affair that somehow combines the same The Clash-style guitar slash from "Lonely Boy" with a Motown-coloured chorus along the lines of The Four Tops or Temptations, complete with handclaps and more solid chorus help from their trio of Han, Rigdon and Wilcoxson. It's such a peculiar blend that its thoroughly enjoyable, and Burton's wafting Hammond organ in the song's further reaches only adds to the tune's throwback flavor. After the track's abrupt conclusion, the jagged "Gold On The Ceiling" tamps down the rambunctiousness, but not the spirit. Auerbach's growling electric guitar is matched with a brightening acoustic guitar part and fuzzy keyboards. It also isn't hard to locate hints of The Doors an the number's outskirts. 

In as much record's opening trio of tracks points to a union of punk energy with R&B richness, in the clean-up spot, "Little Black Submarines" owes its foundation to straightforward classic rock, and possibly the most storied classic rock anthem, Led Zeppelin's "Stairway to Heaven." One can only hope Auerbach is overtly channeling Jimmy Page's iconic acoustic guitar part here, otherwise the similarity of the two pieces would amount to outright lifting. And although the number is dwarfed by "Stairway's" more than double run time, the comparison continues as a similar hard rock breakdown takes over at the song's midpoint, again akin to its classic ancestor. The only divergence between the two is Aurbach and Carney's version contains far less references to mythology and fantasy literature than Robert Plant's original lyrics.

Unfortunately, after such a strong quartet of numbers, the record's mid-section bottoms out. Among the triplet of "Money Maker," "Run Right Back" and "Sister," none are especially hard to listen to, but, conversely, none are all that captivating either. They're solid rock numbers, but not very distinguishable. It's not a moral sin for the album, but based on its earlier output, the cuts are a bit disappointing, most likely due to the absence of the keyboards, organs and backing vocals that defined the initial offerings.

But do stick around for the latter third of the compilation. "Hell Of A Season" regains a bit of the swagger, which fully returns on another Motown-grounded groove in "Stop, Stop," hinting at faint resemblances to Stevie Wonder's "Uptight (Everything's Alright)" in its jangly chorus. Meanwhile, "Nova Baby" is the album's most joyous contribution, with the return of The Clash guitar slash and a pogo stick bounce in the chorus. Closer "Mind Eraser" ends the affair with a bit of Doors-style psychedelia, but doesn't overdo it at only 3:15.  

Come for: "Lonely Boy"
Stay for: "Dead and Gone"
You'll be surprised by: "Stop, Stop"

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Jonathan Coulton

It can be tempting to brand material from a newer band or artist that is similar in style to a more established act as derivative or unoriginal. And sometimes such criticisms are valid. Anyone who knows my tastes in music is aware of my less than enthusiastic stance on Coldplay as a less-interesting version of Radiohead. But often, acts for whom a large portion of their sound is influenced by a certain predecessor, the outcome can be a fresh take on a well-worn approach, and add new spins and directions to it. This is the case with New York, N.Y.-based singer-songwriter Jonathan Coulton and his They Might Be Giants (TMBG)-patterned veneer on his eighth studio recording, Artificial Heart, released independently by Coulton on November 8.  

The TMBG (NMT) influence should come as no surprise here, given that TMBG co-frontman John Flansbaugh produced the record. While Coulton previously released seven full-length albums, most were recorded without a band and in Coulton's home studios. Flansbaugh's involvement allowed Coulton to utilize studio musicians – many of whom have worked with TMBG and TMBG-related efforts in the past – in a professional space. The collection's whopping 18 tracks also include several guest vocal appearances, from John Roderick on "Nemesis," Suzanne Vega (of "Tom's Diner" fame) on "Now I Am an Arsonist" and Sara Quinn of the Canadian twin sister duo Tegan and Sara on "Still Alive." The added resources help bolster Coulton's already-stellar songwriting talents, and the studio band in particular provides some welcome punch across the record.

While Coulton bases his constructions largely around TMBG's trademark blend of clever and catchy – and his vocal phrasing is primarily a reflection of Flansbaugh's TMBG partner, John Linnell – he introduces outside flavors ranging from the smooth Americana polish of Jackson Browne to more punk-tinged crunch in a The Kinks or Ted Leo vein. These more diverse backgrounds broaden Coulton's work from only TMBG regurgitation to a more distinctive portfolio. Of course, you wouldn't not it immediately, as leadoff track "Sticking It to Myself" saunters in with the familiar saxophone root common in so many TMBG tracks over the years, and Linnell-style vocals from Coulton, although with a touch more power pop fuel than the Johns usually offer. Still, it's hooky and well-crafted – a great introduction for new listeners. At the same time, the following "Artificial Heart" is quirky and aloof at first, then bright and boastful at the chorus – another tried and true TMBG staple, although the keyboards are more straight-up piano sound than the farfisa organs preferred by Linnell.

"Nemesis" – featuring lead vocals from Roderick instead of Coulton – first introduces the more Americana tendencies cultivated by more classic rock forerunners like Jackson Browne and Warren Zevon. The acoustic and electric guitars form the track's core here, and while the song's title reads like a Star Trek reference, Coulton's lyrics are a bit more straightforward here. It sounds more like something you might expect off an early-era Barenaked Ladies record like Maybe You Should Drive, with Roderick and Coulton complementing each other like the Canadian popsters co-frontman duo of Ed Robertson and now-former member Steven Page (NMT). The distinctiveness continues on "The World Belongs to You" with its heavy mandolin foundation, akin to multiple NMT-profilees Farewell Drifters (NMT, NMT). The bluegrass ditty is unlike anything TMBG has ever attempted.

Following the somber, but coyly witty "Today With Your Wife" – which plays like a Ben Folds (NMT) meets Fountains of Wayne (NMT) ballad – "Sucker Punch" is the album's best, with its heavy power-pop crunch and catchy chorus blazing through the cut's short 1:44 run time, like TMBG's own "Can't Keep Johnny Down" off their recent album, Join Us (NMT). Sure, I'd like a bit more, but it's too fun to get hung up on the brevity.

Later on, "Alone at Home" is a minimalist punk-flavored cruncher – again, short like "Sucker Punch" – while the baroque-themed "Fraud" is sparse and plunky with just Coulton's acoustic guitar. Meanwhile, the humorous "Good Morning Tucson" recalls fellow NMT-profilee Butch Walker's similarly smart "Trash Day" and, after all, who can't chuckle at a verse like, "when I was coming up I got the donuts, which means I got the donuts that I wanted / There was no young punk to steal my jelly-glazed, and I am still sort of amazed that you can be born in the nineties."

Suzanne Vega's pleasant alto pairs well with Coulton on the retrained and earnest "Now I Am an Arsonist," while Sara Quinn brings welcome vocal brightness to the music box-like "Still Alive," although I'm not much of a fan of the track's nearly minute-long warbly intro.

Of course, over the course of 18 tracks, they can't all be can't misses. While the concept of "Je Suis Rick Springfield" is intriguing, the french lyrics don't convey the funny as effectively as his humor is deployed elsewhere. Likewise, "Nobody Loves You Like Me" is a decent musical idea, but is a little too droning for my taste. And elsewhere, you get the sense Coulton's instinct is to retreat to a solo singer-songwriter, which he's perfectly competent at on cuts like "Down Today" and "Want You Gone," but they're not as compelling as his work highlighted above. The same is true for numbers like "Glasses" and "Dissolve," more rocking variants of their guy-and-his-guitar counterparts. But "The Stache" does close the collection on a clever note, with its account of high-school age posturing, again pointing back to Flansbaugh's influence.

Come for: "Sucker Punch"
Stay for: "Good Morning Tucson"
You'll be surprised by: "Today With Your Wife"

P.S. Coulton appeared on the audiobook version of John Hodgman's, The Areas of My Expertise, a fantastic collection of interesting, odd and potentially fictional factoids from the actor best known as the PC Guy in Apple's ads earlier this decade. Coulton provided acoustic guitar backing and interludes, as well as a few off-the-cuff comments. Also, completing the Coulton-Hodgman-TMBG association triangle, Hodgman has appeared in a series of short videos for the band's Venue Songs collection.

Saturday, December 3, 2011


 Since this post is already more than three days late, we'll skip the clever/verbose lede and dive right into the review of another spirited, multi-gender outfit that prioritizes energy and enthusiasm in the form of Los Angeles-based quintet, GROUPLOVE, and their debut release, Never Trust a Happy Song – out this past September 13 on Atlantic Records.

You may already be a bit unintentionally aware of the band via their track "Colours," which has appeared in a widely-appearing Chevy commercial and leadoff single "Tongue Tied" promoting Apple's iPod touch. Sure, the mid-90s version of your blogger would have derided such abject commercialism, and would have pointed out that acts like R.E.M. and Pearl Jam would would sooner be caught dead then overtly endorse any product or service. But times have changed with music acquisition nearly exclusively occurring online (legally or otherwise) via the massive decline in record stores, radio stations featuring new music and a bastardized MTV who refuses to air any music videos. Accordingly, bands – especially young bands – need to aggressively promote themselves in as many venues as possible, and mainstream commercials are just one avenue.

Regardless, both tracks featured in the product promos are catchy and representative samples of the group's work on the record. The former is mid-tempo and a touch sludgy, but hooky enough to lure new audiences. Featuring the nasally wail of primary lead vocalist and guitarist Christian Zucconi and solid background vocals from keyboardist Hannah Hooper, it blends Weezer (NMT)-style chorus crunch with looping verses. Its counterpart in "Tongue Tied" is even catchier, with a carefree party grove built around the same bouncy rhythm that anchored the Smashing Pumpkins' iconic "1979" with the blitzing jocularity of contemporary acts like Los Campesinos! (NMT), The Givers (NMT) and Library Voices (NMT). The only fear with the latter track is the risk of it caroming off the cliff into the ravine of dance pop, only one remix away from stocking the playlists of dance clubs everywhere.

Elsewhere, the album's dozen tracks largely feature upbeat and enjoyable pop rock, with a few exceptions. The reggae sway of "Lovely Cup" breezes along with a delightful lightness and "Spun" is both the record's finest cut and one that should earn a spot on any collection of road anthems, alongside highway soundtrack tracks from artists like The Eagles, Jackson Browne and Fleetwood Mac. It might actually be best suited in a pairing with modern road anthems like The Arcade Fire's (NMT) "Keep the Car Running," the Great Lakes Myth Society's "Across the Bridge" and Hey Rosetta's (NMT) "Seeds," especially with Zucconi's lead-in mandolin trading-off nicely with guitarist Andrew Wessen's sturdy electric parts. Deeper tracks like the beach party tribute "Naked Kids" and the harder rockabilly romp of "Chloe" fit well with the record's lighthearted vibe.

But the band is a little less successful on a few other efforts here. While opener "Itchin' on a Photograph" is a fine tune on its own right, Zucconi's vocal range seems to get the best of him, as he spends the better part of the track screeching to a level that could be labeled as unmusical. Meanwhile, Hooper's first taste of leadoff vocals on "Slow" aren't the finest introduction to her talents. Not that her singing isn't adequate here, but rather the song's concept is so dull (as its title might suggest) that her debut is rather ho-hum. It sounds as it could have served as the prime example of the Eurythmics' forays into the depths of the avant garde.  Fortunately, she gets another shot on "Love Will Save Your Soul," and delivers on the slightly bluesy number. Later on, Zucconi uses his distinct nasal delivery to better advantage on "Cruel and Beautiful World," harnessing it more like Rural Alberta Advantage's (NMT) Nils Edenloff, especially with its blend of rusty acoustic guitars and scratch rhythm section backing from bassist Sean Gadd and drummer Ryan Rabin.

Come for: "Tongue Tied"
Stay for: "Spun"
You'll be surprised by: "Lonely Cup"